Tooth and Claw

The Wildlands were a vast stretch of untouched woods that bordered West Taerragon, hiding ancient secrets and dangers. Elenor’s mother had warned her about venturing into them when she was a child, especially at night. Tales of horror and suffering kept most people away, but those who had failed to heed the warnings had never been seen nor heard from again. Looming trees with wide trunks crowded the earth, thick roots entangled beneath the soil like snakes. Twisted branches were knitted together in a dense canopy overhead, allowing in little sunlight.

The almost unearthly acres were threatening to the common outsider. The scent of damp earth and rot permeated the air. This was the place where monsters were said to lurk; where ghosts sought fresh bodies to inhabit; where witches gathered and danced around grand fires that didn’t engulf their surroundings.

The last part was real. Elenor knew.

The Wildlands had once been home to Elenor. Even as a child, she’d never feared them, yet neither had she disrespected them. The woods had taken her in when she’d had nowhere else to turn, when she’d escaped an arranged marriage and left the queen’s crown behind. Elenor had sacrificed manmade comfort and stability in exchange for unfathomable power and freedom. She’d written her vow to the Firstborn in blood, and he had forged her into a sword that could slay dragons.

But there was one dragon Elenor could not slay, for this dragon was right: she was not truly free, and neither was her coven. They were still living under the rule of man.

Elenor was attending a meeting with her coven by the Devil’s Creek. It evoked a memory from her childhood, a legend claiming that staring into the water would switch one’s soul with a dweller’s. The victim would be forever trapped at the bottom of the creek, allowing the dweller to take on their skin and pass into the human world. Whether the legend were true or not, Elenor could not say. She had never attempted to find out for herself, and wouldn’t.

The witches were gathered in a circle, silent, listening to the sounds of the surrounding forest. The Firstborn could be heard in the shifting of leaves, the song of birds, the trilling of insects, and the streaming water. He had spoken to Elenor before. It was how she had found him and become one of his witches. But he hadn’t communicated with her in any form lately, and she dreaded the reason in the back of her mind.

The oldest witch, Agneth, looked up at Elenor. Despite her age, she was not frail in body nor mind. Her cold, blue eyes were like a pair of daggers, cornering Elenor, as if she posed an immediate danger to the coven.

“Elenor,” she said. “The Firstborn has informed me that you have certain thoughts about the Wildlands. Share them.”

All eyes were on Elenor, awaiting a response. The safety of her very soul depended on the truth. She knew this day would come, and she steeled herself as she prepared to confess.

“I met someone from the outside world,” Elenor said. “She showed and taught me things that changed everything I believed and valued.”

“Whom was this outsider you speak of?”

Elenor swallowed. “The Queen of Dragons.”

Breaths were caught. Unlike the other witches, Agneth appeared more disappointed than surprised.

“So the prophecy is true,” she said, “and you are helping to fulfill it.”

“No!” Elenor said. “This is much more than the prophecy. This is about our freedom.”

“Our freedom?”

“Yes. The Dragon Queen showed me that I am not truly free. None of us are, even in the Wildlands.”

The coven was overcome with disbelief and confusion, exchanging glances and whispers. Agneth hushed the witches with a raised hand that commanded silence.

“How can you say we are not truly free?” Agneth asked.

“We still depend on the Firstborn to survive,” Elenor said. “We still bleed, age, and die.”

Agneth raised an eyebrow. “Gratitude would serve you well, child. The Firstborn has given us everything we could ever want in exchange for nothing more than loyalty. Immortality, however, cannot be ours. That is the dream of men, one that will never be achieved.”

“It is well within our reach,” Elenor said. “The Philosopher’s Stone has been found.”

Gasps were followed by questions, and Agneth silenced the coven once again. Her gaze darkened.

“Is this true?” she asked.

“Yes,” Elenor said. “It is in the possession of the Dragon Queen. We have been working on the elixir together, and it is near-perfected.”

Agneth’s glare was burning through Elenor, as if determined to incinerate everything that made her a witch. Elenor did not feel she was a part of the coven anymore.

“We are meant to die,” Agneth said. “We are meant to give back all we have taken from the earth when it is our time. This is how it has always been, and how it will always be.”

Agneth’s words were like heavy chains, dragging Elenor down to the earth that had created and ruled over her body, whispering in her mind: I own you.

A surge of tearful anger burned up all of Elenor’s fear, turning the blood that ran through her veins to fire.

“No,” she said.

Agneth’s nostrils flared. “What did you say?”

Elenor’s hands bunched into fists at her sides. “I said no! This is not how things have to be. We can change them. We can rise above death and be far more powerful than we are now. Perhaps the plants and creatures need to die to give back to the soil, but we, as women and girls—as humans—do not.”

The coven was in a state of shock. Never before had one of them defied their eldest, let alone everything they had believed and been practicing that predated generations.

Agneth’s eyes were wide with a wrath that she was about to unleash.

“You will bow to the earth, the oceans, the stars,” she spat, “for you are nothing without nature! We do not fight against what the Firstborn embodies, we—!”

“The Firstborn is a man!”

Silence stole the coven as well as nature. The leaves went still. The sounds of birds and insects ceased. The creek even seemed to quiet.

The hairs on the back of Elenor’s neck raised. The sudden chill in the air grazed her cheek like cold fingertips. An unmistakable presence manifested behind her, and the other witches’ fearful expressions confirmed its existence, but she dared not look. Agneth was the only witch whose face was as hard as stone.

“Take her,” Agneth commanded. “The Firstborn demands it.”

The witches exchanged nervous looks, expecting one another to step forth, but nobody did.

Agneth glared, eyes sweeping the coven like a hawk. “Mary and Mercy. Do as I say.”

The sisters looked at each other and then at Elenor. She had been as careful as possible to avoid suspicion, but the other witches hadn’t gone far to question her, as if they, too, had certain thoughts about the Wildlands. They couldn’t possibly share them—everything around them was listening.

Despite their hesitation, the sisters obeyed the eldest.

Agneth led the coven through the woods. Elenor could only imagine what kind of punishment awaited her. She fought back tears, trying to garner all the strength and hope she still had. If she were to die and feed the earth, she would do so with poison, a curse.

The sunlight was fading from the sky and the trees were growing more menacing in the dark. The air was frigid, biting through Elenor’s cloak. Agneth conjured a fire in her hand, lighting the way. Where was she taking them?

No witch had ever managed to explore every inch of the Wildlands in her lifetime, but Elenor had familiarized herself with a great extent. She had learned the languages of many trees and plants and animals. Agneth was guiding them through a place she did not recognize, somewhere that opened up to the moonless sky.

Agneth stopped, and the coven halted. She turned and faced everyone, the only source of light burning brightly in her palm.

“Elenor,” she said. “You have dishonored the Firstborn. You have betrayed him and your coven. For such misdeeds, you must return what belongs to nature.”

Her body. Death. She was going to die.

Agneth raised the hand that held the fire, as if offering it to the sky. Mary and Mercy let go of Elenor’s arms and rejoined their coven, abandoning the traitorous witch. The flame grew, blazing, angry. Elenor couldn’t tear her eyes from it, making out a face that glowered upon her.

Strength was draining from her body, leaving her weak and dizzy. Elenor stumbled to the ground. She attempted to get up as shadows warped around her, dancing and mocking and laughing. A great wave of heat washed over her, a fever. A sickening warmth in the pit of her stomach was stirring, and an invisible force pulled it out through her mouth in the form of a streaming fire, feeding the flame in Agneth’s hand.

Elenor lost consciousness.

When she woke up to the unforgiving cold, body aching and head throbbing, all Elenor could see were the tiny stars set high above the canopy. The rest of her surroundings were hidden in pitch-black darkness.

Bushes rustled nearby. She was not alone.

Elenor stayed still, listening. She didn’t want to stay here, but nor did she want to draw attention to herself. Whatever was prowling about sounded as if it were drawing closer, leaves crunching in its wake. Elenor’s body trembled from fear and the cold. She tried to steady her breathing, but it was difficult as the creature neared. She pushed her fingers into the soil, silently begging the land to protect her and give her guidance.

But the land did not speak. She was a stranger to it, an intruder. She had lost what had made her a witch: the Firstborn’s fire.

Elenor squeezed her eyes shut, tears streaking down the sides of her face and into her thick, curly hair. No longer could she defend herself with the help of the land or magic.

The crunching stopped. Elenor didn’t dare move a muscle, lying there for however long it would take for the creature to lose interest and move on.

Elenor,” her mother’s voice came, seizing her breath. “I told you to stay away from these woods.

“M-mother?” Elenor whispered.

Why didn’t you listen to me, Elenor? You belong to this place now. The earth will swallow you whole.

“No,” Elenor said, eyes welling with tears. “Please, I want to leave. I wish to go home.”

There is no other home for you, my dear.

Elenor cried until her body was too exhausted to produce any more tears.

A crash of thunder shook Elenor awake. A droplet of water landed on her face. The dark clouds above were preparing a storm. Elenor hadn’t expected to survive the night, but her heart was still beating and she remained unharmed. Sitting up, she recalled her deceased mother’s voice from last night. Had it been a dream? Had she imagined it? Had the spirits been toying with her?

Elenor surveyed the environment, watching and listening for signs of potential danger. Finding none, she got to her feet and searched for an escape, clinging to a glimmer of hope that she would eventually stumble across it.

Another crash of thunder shook Elenor to the core, followed by a flash of lightning. She hadn’t feared the elements before, having used them to her advantage as a witch, but she no longer possessed that kind of power. She could not stop the rain that fell in torrents and soaked her, causing her cloak to become too heavy and her dress to stick to her skin. She could not warm her body by conjuring fire and keep the sickness of the cold away.

Unable to find decent shelter, Elenor huddled against a tree and brought her knees close to her chest, fighting to wait out the relentless storm. She was trembling all over, likely to catch her death, if something else didn’t reach her first.

The rain lightened and ceased, but the sky remained dark, threatening to continue the downpour. Elenor prayed it would not. She was freezing. She had to find warmth. She had to escape the Wildlands.

But, no matter what direction she took, she ended up where her witch’s fire had been reclaimed, under the same canopy. The Wildlands wouldn’t let her leave. Death at the jaws of an animal was more desirable, but that would be too gentle of a punishment. Starvation, disease, and madness were written in her fate. The earth would claim her body and the spirits would claim her soul.

Elenor cried. She yelled at the Wildlands, cursed them, tried to provoke them, but she was met with silence. She ran and ran, but it was no use, for the Wildlands were taking her in circles. All she could do was run and scream.

Pitch-black night returned. Elenor was lying on the ground, looking up at the stars that she would never reach, depleted of her energy and ability to think.

The leaves crunched again. As the sound drew near, Elenor closed her eyes, reminding herself that this was all a trick and nothing more. The Wildlands were intent on driving her mad with fear. The Firstborn didn’t want her dead yet.

The sound was growing too close. Then, it stopped.

Elenor waited, listening. Seconds became minutes that became hours. She could not stay awake any longer, and sleep took her once more.

Raindrops pulled Elenor back into cold, hard reality. The sky was overcast again, but this morning seemed different as her senses roused. A terrible rotting smell invaded her nostrils, causing her to gag. She looked to her side and screamed, scrambling to her feet.

The decomposing corpse that was buzzing and crawling with insects shared her long, black curls and her exact black cloak and red dress. It was her.

Elenor’s stomach heaved, but there was nothing to bring up. She held a hand over her mouth, crying and wailing, the grotesque image of her corpse burning into her mind. Was she, herself, dead? No, this was another trick. She was still breathing. Her heart was pounding against her ribcage.

Her legs were weak, but Elenor pushed herself to run as far as she could, even though she would only circle back. A large root tripped her and she went flying to the ground, twisting her ankle in the process and nearly hitting her head. Elenor cried out from the pain. Her foot was in an unnatural position. She couldn’t walk on it.

Elenor,” her mother’s voice returned, sending ice through her veins.

Elenor looked around, but she couldn’t find her mother.

Elenor,” her mother said, “I told you that you would die here, but you didn’t listen to me.

Elenor shook her head, hands sliding into her hair and pulling at the roots. “Please, stop.”

The earth will take what you have taken from it,” her mother said. “Your flesh. Your bones. Your soul.

“Stop it!”

Oh, your soul. How it will burn.

A blast of fire shot down from the sky and consumed a section of the trees, incinerating them to the ground within seconds. Elenor watched in horror as the flames spread, producing thick, black clouds of smoke.

It will burn, it will burn!


Elenor dragged herself as quickly as she could away from the flames, but the smoke was permeating the air, invading her lungs and making her cough. She was growing dizzy. She wasn’t going to make it out alive.

She collapsed.

A figure in red appeared in her hazy vision, but Elenor could barely understand what was transpiring. Between bouts of consciousness she caught sight of opalescent scales and clouds and sunlight. She found her arms secured around the waist of another young woman in a sort of device.

Seerah?” Elenor rasped.

The Dragon Queen didn’t respond. The wind was too harsh to carry Elenor’s voice, whipping her hair around as they soared over the Wildlands. Perhaps she was dreaming. Perhaps this was all an illusion, another cruel trick played by the Firstborn. Too weak to think, too tired to care, Elenor gave in to unconsciousness.

Part 2 →

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